Adult content on Patreon

Posted at 23:49 on 25 Oct 2017 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: censorship, Patreon, politics, pornocalypse, sex worker rights

Pandora Blake is creating sexual freedom - Patreon

"Small tweaks, big impact." That was the title of the Patreon newsletter which I got sent last week. I read the headlines - changes to the way we can browse and store patron data and issue refunds, and thought nothing of it. It wasn't until this week that someone on Twitter posted paragraphs from the Terms of Service that had been updated.

I had completely missed it. There had been a link at the bottom of the email referencing "the progress we're making on our Trust and Safety commitments", which I failed to realise meant their policy regarding adult content.

Had I clicked, I would have known last week that Patreon have explicitly updated their Terms of Service to prevent sex workers from funding their work via Patreon. It's unclear to me whether Patreon deliberately obscured this announcement because they knew it would be unpopular; or whether they genuinely didn't think it would be a big deal, but these "small tweaks" do indeed threaten a big impact - a devastating blow for independent sex workers.

Patreon ask all creators to mark their page as "adult content" if anything on it "ventures into R-rated territory". This hides the page from site search. The new TOS also makes it compulsory to put any adult content behind patron-only posts, rather than having it publicly visible.

My Patreon page was already listed as adult, so no change for me there. However I use public-facing posts to give out free resources arising from my political work. Information about a radio show on Queer DIY Porn I broadcast via a sex worker community radio station; slides from a talk I gave on feminist porn; questions answered about UK porn law - these are all posts I may have to set patrons-only to comply with the new rules, depending on what they determine counts as "adult".

A brief aside: we've seen this sort of incremental erasure of adult content before. It can be death by a thousand cuts. Tumblr is a prime example. Blogs that post adult content account for 10% of Tumblr's user base, including a lot of women, queers, and various fandoms - in other words, audiences not catered to by mainstream porn. When Yahoo bought Tumblr, a series of erasures culminated in adult blogs being removed from every form of search possible - not only from Tumblr's internal site search, but de-indexed from Google and other search engines. Now, blogs marked "adult" on Tumblr are not even visible unless you're logged in to a Tumblr account and have consented to view adult materials.

I really hope this isn't a sign that Patreon are heading down the same path. They are already hiding pages marked adult from internal search. If they end up being hidden unless you're logged into Patreon, this would make it nearly impossible for adult creators to get new signups; we need to be able to show our overview, campaign video and public posts to prospective supporters. 

This is part of a greater trend. Adult content on the Internet is increasingly becoming a walled garden, dropped from Google search results, banned from Facebook and Instagram, and locked behind password-protected services such as Fetlife and Tumblr, and - soon - age verification on paysites. Twitter is the last place adult content can be shared publically on social media, and it's not paranoid to anticipate that this may fall under the axe soon too. If Patreon were to start taking the pro-active and aggressive approach that Paypal and Google do when it comes to adult content, it might become impossible to have a Patreon page at all if you're a known sex worker - we've seen sex workers rejected by payment providers so many times, even for worksafe projects.

Hopefully that won't come to pass. Meanwhile, Patreon's new Terms of Service forbid offering any adult content as perks.

Depending on how it's enforced, this could be a big deal. Up to now, I've offered a signed spanking photo and one month Dreams of Spanking membership as perks; a monthly newsletter containing erotic photos; and permanent Dreams of Spanking memberships at higher levels. All those might all count as "pornography", meaning I'd need to remove all four to comply with the new TOS. 

It's pretty clear from the comments and replies I get from my Patrons that these are my most popular incentives. The reason this would particularly suck is that these rewards use materials I already have available. If I were to have to make do without them, it would mean working harder and longer to generate new, worksafe rewards - all of which which would take time away from the actual campaigning that the page is intended to support. I'm also going to guess that the sexy perks make it easier for me to attract new pledges, and I'd do less well without them.

In addition to the above, certain content is banned entirely on Patreon, even if it's marked "adult content" and patrons-only:

We have zero tolerance when it comes to the glorification of sexual violence which includes bestiality, rape, and child exploitation (i.e., sexualized depiction of minors). This is true for illustrated, animated, or any other type of content. Patreon reserves the right to review and remove accounts that may violate this guideline. As a strong commitment to child safety, we will work with law enforcement whenever we come across child exploitation.

We also do not allow other fringe sexual fetish content, such as incest, necrophilia, or fetish content that is hard to distinguish from non-consensual sex.

I don't think I'm being paranoid to imagine how that last clause might include things like... oh, maybe spanking porn.

There's more:

Lastly, you cannot sell pornographic material or arrange sexual service(s) as a reward for your patrons. You can’t use Patreon to raise funds in order to produce pornographic material such as maintaining a website, funding the production of movies, or providing a private webcam session.

This is a blatant attack on sex workers. Patreon are clearly stating that they don't want to be funding commercial adult enterprise. And that sucks, because Patreon is perfect for sex workers. It's the only crowd-funding platform that offers regular, predictable payments. We use it to empower ourselves, stabilise our income, and build relationships with followers. It lets us create new, ambitious, political and creative works without having to worry about anticipated sales or fulfilling the desires of a standard consumer market. By pre-funding our work we know before investing time and money that there is a paying audience for it; and crowd-funding allows us to engage directly with that audience. Through Patreon, we can maintain an ongoing supporter base without having to set up a new kickstarter for every individual project. In the unstable world of freelance self-employment, a bit of predictable monthly income is rare and valuable. And now sex workers - arguably the people who need it most, given the irregular nature of our work, and the fact we aren't allowed to use most other online payment services - are prohibited from using yet another funding model.

Patreon has sent out an email tonight, attempting to soothe ruffled feathers by reassuring us that nothing has actually changed, and the new terms just provide "clarity". But the tenor of the TOS has definitely changed. Previously, Patreon had a paragraph in that said although they did not allow "porn", they recognised the value of nudity and sexual expression within art, and they were happy to support artistic projects that involved nudity and suggestive imagery, as long as they were not pornographic. While this is a clearly false distinction (what is porn? who decides? is there a difference between "porn" and "eroticism" beyond classism?), the fuzziness of this boundary created a grey area that allowed adult Patreon creators to flourish, as long as they described their work as "art". To explicitly remove this paragraph sends a clear message that Patreon do not want to be associated with sexual material or the people who make it.

Here's what CEO Jack Conte said in his email this evening:

We used to say we allowed “R-rated” content, but that description was ineffective at clearly explaining our policy to the community. It didn’t give you the specificity you needed to understand what’s allowed, and what isn’t. Our updated Community Guidelines explain in way more detail what we mean when it comes to adult content. I also realize that “pornography” is difficult to define, and “you know it when you see it” is a totally inadequate policy. So we’ve added additional detail to the pornography section of our content policy, and the team will be spending even more time clarifying our guidelines in the future. As of this morning, the guidelines state that we don’t allow “real people engaging in sexual acts, such as masturbation or sexual intercourse on camera.

Bye bye fuzzy grey area. They're distancing themselves from sex workers, porn makers and others working in the field of sexuality. This is whorephobia, pure and simple, and if these rules are enforced it could lead to poverty and homelessness for many adult creators. Those most reliant on their Patreon income will be those who are less privileged, and have fewer opportunities.

Why are Patreon doing this? Well, we can only guess. We do know that they are currently undergoing a period of steep growth; last month they accepted new investment (to the tune of $60M), and since then they've rebranded, hired new staff and launched new features. Perhaps this tightening of their guidelines on adult content is in response to pressure from investors, or from the financial companies they have relationships with. If so, it might not stick. After Paypal put pressure on Patreon to disallow Paypal transactions to adult creators, Patreon managed to negotiate an exception, becoming the first place you could use Paypal to pay for sexy stuff online. 

We have no way of knowing whether Patreon intends to actively enforce these new rules, or whether the wording changes are just a way for them to save face. But it's increased the precarity of a lot of content creators using Patreon, and the fear and frustration are palpable. An Open Letter to Patreon has already sprung up, undersigned by 1129 people at the time of writing. I've taken a risk by adding my name to it, just as I'm taking a risk by writing this post.

I don't know whether putting pressure on Patreon via public outcry will make them more or less likely to engage in oppressive enforcement of their new TOS. But I believe in transparency and accountability, and if I end up having to change the way I present my campaign funding online, I want people to know why. I think talking about things openly is almost always better than staying silent out of fear.

Don't get me wrong: I am afraid. This is a punch to the gut. I have already had my personal political porn website criminalised by my Government. After the law changed in 2014 I refused to censor myself, because I did not feel that I had any reason to be ashamed of my sexuality. I took a stand, and I got punished for it. My website was taken offline. I was threatened with being outed, which would have been devastating for my family. Even though I eventually won my appeal - proving that I had been operating within the law; my website had had a right to exist; the law had been unjust, and enforced unjustly - my website has never recovered. Taking an online business offline for ten months decimates your traffic, your business relationships, and your sales. Despite great efforts, I was unable to bounce back.

While my website was offline I set up a Patreon page to fund my political campaigning. I was finding myself being asked to act as a spokesperson, researcher and political writer for the UK fetish scene and niche porn community. To do this work, I needed to take time away from paid engagements - and that meant generating funds some other way.

I've spent a year and a half building up my page to the point where it empowers me to spend a significant portion of my time doing valuable political work, with real, measurable impact. My dream is to build it up to the point where I'm fully funded and can work fulltime as a writer and activist. But this has reminded me that at any moment, it could be whisked away.

I'm angry at the idea of having to self-censor to protect my earnings, and my ability to keep campaigning. Even if I could find a way of stripping all the "adult" references from my Patreon page, I don't know if that's the best thing to do. It would make it very difficult to communicate who I am, and what I'm doing.

I believe in truth, beauty and freedom. For me, freedom means freedom to, as well as freedom from. As an activist I'm not just being reactive - working to free people from oppression, to challenge bad laws and mitigate their harms, to combat stigma and hate - I'm also being active, building our freedom to self-determine. Personal and physical autonomy is a human right. Consensual pleasure, self-confidence and self-love harms no-one. Good porn models good consent and communication, generates empathy and relatedness between members of different communities, and dismantles shame. Why is Patreon afraid of funding that?

We have the right to be ourselves. We have the right to express ourselves. We have the right to create art that tells the truth about who we are, and how we feel. And we have the right - if we are spending days, weeks, months or years of our lives creating laborious, complex artistic projects that involve skill and energy and time to make - to be compensated for our time, to ask our supporters and audience to fund us if they so wish. Patreon is consensual: no-one has to pay unless they want to. 

There is nothing coercive or exploitative about Patreon: quite the opposite. It is widely claimed that sex work and porn work are both: well, here we are, doing it ourselves, exercising our autonomy. Until we are prevented from doing so. Criminalisation, censorship and online prudishness back us into corners. If we can't fund our porn via Patreon, if we can't make a living independently online, maybe we'll have to go back to working for porn producers who give us less choice, and less freedom. Independent sex workers are safer sex workers.

I fear that Patreon is succumbing to the same tide of censorship and silencing that we are seeing across the world, and particularly in the UK right now. It's hard not to feel demoralised. This is a sustained attack, and the cumulative impact of it is devastating. I feel like a fly battling against a jumbo jet. It can feel that we are powerless to stem this tide.

But my stubborn streak still exists. It's been a tough couple of days: processing my fear, my disappointment, my anger. It's bought it home that yet another carefully devised way of arranging my livelihood could so easily be undermined thanks to prudishness and cowardice on the part of companies, and the banks and governments that put pressure on them. 

If you want to do something about this, please sign the Open Letter to Patreon. Jack Conte has said that "Most folks — literally *most* creators by multiple factors of ten — even in the adult communities — have nothing to be concerned about." Let's hold them to that.

Personally, I intend to wait and see. I've never been one for self-censorship. I'm already thinking about what I'd change, if I had to, and perhaps I'll prepare some materials in case they come knocking, but I'm not going to pre-empt them. If I have to reinvent my means of making a living yet again, because every single thing I try gets pulled out from under me, then that's exactly what I'll do. I will stay one step ahead for as long as it takes to make an impact; to reach enough people that this stops happening, and we collectively realise that there is nothing wrong with sex. 

We shouldn't have to censor our bodies, our desires, our sexual self-expression.

We are human,
we are sexual,
we are artistic,
we are political,
we have bodies,
and we are proud.

We delight in our sexualities. We take joy in them.

And we are not ashamed.

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